Derek Simpson has brought about an earthquake in the British labour movement. ''People ask me: what has changed? I reply: everything." Simpson's victory over Tony Blair's favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson, to head the country's largest manufacturing trade union, Amicus (the former AEEU), has transformed industrial politics. "I am the right wing's ultimate nightmare. I am the man from nowhere," he declares.
Nobody should be in any doubt about his left-wing, indeed socialist, credentials. "I can't stand injustice. It burns in me. I want to cry out from the rooftops." He is unimpressed by the trappings of national power. "I don't care about chauffeur-driven cars, expense-account lunches, plush hotels. I am here to voice the views of the workers I represent." But unlike many of the other young militants coming to the top in the union movement, Simpson's outlook is formed by long, hard years in the wilderness. At 58, he is, he says, "a mature student".
He has spent his entire life in Sheffield, once the steel capital of the world. The birthplace of Roy Hattersley and David Blunkett, it is known for its high-minded municipal socialism; its council fell to Labour as early as 1926. But Simpson's outlook was shaped by the remarkable cadre of shop stewards who dominated the city's engineering firms in the postwar years. Most were communists and it came naturally to the young Simpson to join their party. He insists: "It was the industrial appeal of communism and not its political side that attracted me. Everything the stewards told me made sense." This was never a mindless militancy. Paul Allender, a labour historian, explains that, in Sheffield, "the trade unions and the Communist Party did not in any way attempt to wreck industrial organisation. Instead, they enhanced the efficiency of companies by disciplining the workforce and by contributing a sense of pride in the job."
As a skilled craftsman at Firth Brown Tools, the young Simpson worked his way up the shop-floor union hierarchy. In the late 1970s, for three years in succession, in the dying period of the Callaghan government's social contract with the TUC, he was elected to serve on the national committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He became a full-time elected AEU district official in 1981, in succession to the veteran communist George Caborn, father of the current sports minister. He drifted out of the Communist Party before the fall of the Berlin Wall because "it lost its industrial relevance". His own union had already turned decisively to the right after the retirement of the AEU president Hugh Scanlon in 1978; and Simpson found himself part of a dwindling band of leftwingers, clinging to what looked like an increasingly obsolete tradition of class war.
He came to local power at the very moment that Sheffield's industrial base plunged into irreversible decline. "All I saw after 1981 was a world in retreat," he says. Local firms closed, thousands of workers lost their jobs and the intricate network of shop-floor power that had lasted since the 1920s fell apart. The film The Full Monty became the symbol of the city's plight. Simpson's Sheffield redoubt became a left-wing backwater in a union where the national leadership was dominated by the West Midlands and Scotland.
In 1992, the AEU merged with the EETPU (the right-wing electricians' and plumbers' union), becoming the AEEU. Drastic internal reforms ended the tradition of elected local officials and district committees where shop stewards had wielded authority; power was centralised more and more at head office in Kent, eventually under Jackson's leadership. Two years ago, Simpson's Sheffield office was shut down and moved to Derby as part of a rationalisation scheme. He saw it as a move to marginalise him, but perhaps it was the application of such Leninist principles of democratic centralism that ultimately allowed him to defeat Jackson.
Simpson appealed to the old values of the engineers' union (founded as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1851), calling for the restoration of workplace democracy and accountability. He drew on old Yorkshire traditions. Sheffield was the centre of revolutionary syndicalism during and after the First World War. It was the home of the legendary militant J T Murphy, who worked at Vickers in the city's Brightside district. He once wrote: "Real, democratic practice demands that every member of an organisation shall participate actively in the content of the business of the society. If one man can sway a crowd in one direction, another man can move them in the opposite direction. We desire the mass of men and women to think for themselves and until they do this no real progress is made and democracy becomes a farce."
South Yorkshire was probably the heartland of Simpson's election victory. But he lists a number of engineering plants across Britain where shop stewards backed him in the recent election, including modern workplaces such as Nissan in Sunderland. Simpson believes he touched a raw nerve among many old AEU stalwarts who resent what they see as the takeover of their union by the electricians. "People were sick of the control-freakery where they were afraid to speak. They disliked their union leadership backing sweetheart deals with employers and no strike agreements and the private finance initiative in the public services. Some were saying: what are we in the union for any longer?"
He adds: "Jackson had simply lost touch with the members. They resented his closeness to Tony Blair and new Labour, his knighthood, his readiness to show more sensitivity to employers than to them." Certainly, union head office tried to thwart him. He was prevented from campaigning at Ford's giant Dagenham plant and at Westland in Yeovil. The union magazine never mentioned him, filling its pages with photographs of Jackson.
Some at union head office believe he will be an isolated general secretary when he arrives in January. They liken him to an American president facing a Senate run by the opposite party. Yet, while that may have been possible in the old AEU - with its US-style constitution and intricate checks and balances - even including a supreme court - thanks to Ken Jackson and the right, all power in the union now resides with the general secretary. Moreover, Simpson thinks he can count on support from members acquired in the latest merger - with MSF, the white-collar manufacturing union. Simpson is set for seven years in office, without having to look over his shoulder, because he is too old to have to face re-election.
But does a restoration of elected district committees and local officials make sense in the new world of work? Even Sheffield has been transformed from what it was in Simpson's formative years. No longer a city of steel and engineering, its energetic planners want to restore its fortunes by turning it into a global centre of clusters around bioscience, advanced manufacturing, environmental and energy technologies and digital industries.
Today, HSBC is the biggest private sector employer in Sheffield, with 3,500 staff. "Sheffield will remain a producer city, we hope with a global reach, like Toulouse and Milan," says Vince Taylor, director of Sheffield First Partnership, and the man charged with attracting inward investment to the city. Boeing's European research and development arm is now based in Sheffield. Other foreign firms may be attracted by the city's highly skilled industrial base.
Yet Simpson, an engaging, quietly spoken man, certainly seems to possess the inner toughness required to push through what he wants. He relishes the prospect of sorting out head office. No longer does he look like a man who walks alone in a hopeless cause. His mobile phone is clogged up with calls from well-wishers from the wider trade union world. Many on the TUC general council can hardly disguise their delight at Jackson's sudden demise.
Like the angry young men elected recently to lead other unions, Simpson owes his dra- matic breakthrough to a populist appeal to a rank and file who want the unions to act more like independent industrial organisations and not subservient political allies of a new Labour project that seems to despise and marginalise the trade union movement. Simpson has no time for Blair or the government on many issues. But he is now a member of the Labour Party. Over the com- ing years, he will be expected to help set its policy agenda. Many observers believe that the future of social democratic trade unionism must lie through closer ties with the European Union, partnerships with companies, and legally enforceable rights for all workers, not just union members.
The self-proclaimed man from nowhere, with his narrow Sheffield experience, will need to follow a steep learning curve if he is to cope with this kind of thinking. Perhaps he will find a role model from his own union. Back in 1967, the AEU was convulsed by the sudden election of a tough former communist called Hugh Scanlon. A leftwinger from Manchester, he won its presidency against a right-wing Labour loyalist, John Boyd. Scanlon was accused of parking his tanks on the lawn at Chequers by the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, and we now know he was viewed by our intelligence services as a serious security risk.
He ended up as the toast of the engineering employers, complete with a seat in the House of Lords.
Robert Taylor is research associate on the Future of the Unions project at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance